The Ashes: Alastair Cook's men look solid but Australia can still find their feet
Darren Lehmann's arrival may galvanise tour party who arrived in disarray
The destiny of the Ashes will depend on two simple but critical issues. Are England as good as they think they are? Are Australia as bad as it has become fashionable to imply?
Almost certainly, the next seven weeks will reveal that the truth in both cases is probably nearer the negative than the affirmative. But the gap may not close enough to change the outcome. England ought to win the Ashes for the third time in succession, starting at Trent Bridge on Wednesday, thereby securing their first hat-trick against Australia since the great treble between 1953 and 1956.
If they manage it they will be heading Down Under this winter for a consecutive quartet, something they have not achieved since winning seven in a row between 1884 and 1890, when the only real similarity was that they were doing so for a country where a much-loved female monarch had reigned for a long time. However, that is to make a leap of faith much too far into the future.
In the here and now, the holders of the Ashes will have their hands full with opponents whose rejuvenation in the past fortnight has been palpable. Australia have never been short of conviction, even when it was obvious that they were an ill-disciplined rabble whose team had been cobbled together on a wing and a prayer, but the advent of Darren Lehmann as the new coach has revolutionised their dressing room.
Suddenly, and with due respect to the former coach, Mickey Arthur from South Africa, they feel Australian again. It was evident that first sunny morning of the tour match at Taunton and it was reinforced in Worcester last week. Lehmann has solid credentials as a player and as a coach, but essentially he is just one of those blokes who everybody feels better for being around.
England have watched from afar, making a fair show of pretending not to care what the opposition are up to, acting like wise old-stagers who have seen it all before and know what they are about. Their quiet confidence, which occasionally threatens to stray into smugness, is that of a team who have been there and done it.
Two of their side, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, have appeared in three Ashes-winning series, another six have been in two. The idea that they would be intimidated, like so many of their predecessors have been, is laughable.
The apparent gap between the sides was heightened by their respective recent appearances in India. England achieved an epic 2-1 triumph in the Test series, while Australia were not only hammered 4-0 but showed that they were a team at odds with themselves.
If Lehmann has bridged the gap and salved the wounds, and if playing in India is nothing like playing in England, this should still be England's series to lose. The home side may have changed their opening partnership to allow the young thruster, Joe Root, to go in with the captain, Alastair Cook, instead of the discarded Nick Compton, but their batting gives the impression of being settled and assured.
Four days away from the opening Test, Australia have not yet confirmed who precisely they think should be batting, and where. The bold decision to ally Shane Watson and Chris Rogers in another brand- new first-wicket pairing has not been accompanied by similar resolve in determining the rest of the order.
Ed Cowan may or may not bat at three, Steve Smith, a late addition to the squad, may have forced his way into the No 6 berth, David Warner may return at five after serving his ban for punching Root in a late-night bar despite having not had an innings for more than a month, but Phil Hughes is a definite possible at first drop. This sort of confusing scenario would have been unthinkable in an Australian side in any recent Ashes series, whether winning or losing.
The bowling attacks look well-matched, but the combined menace posed by Jimmy Anderson and his henchmen should be sufficient to outperform the pyrotechnics provided by the speed merchant James Pattinson for the tourists.
It will come down to the batting. England's is probably not as good as they think it is, Australia's is not as bad as it is perceived, but ultimately England should still score more runs and win a third consecutive home Ashes series for the first time since doing so in 1977, 1981 and 1985.
Lehmann talked at Worcester of the crucial need to score hundreds. Since the sides last met in Australia two years ago, Australia have played 24 Tests and scored 25 centuries, which have come from seven players. Nine, however, have come from the bat of one man, their captain, Michael Clarke, eight others from Michael Hussey and Ricky Ponting, who are now retired, and two from men who are unlikely to play.
England have scored 32 hundreds in 27 Tests, nine from Cook, five each from Bell and Pietersen, four from Jonathan Trott, three from Matt Prior and one, most recently, from Root. It is compelling evidence in concluding which way it should go.
Plenty could go wrong for England. Anderson's continuing fitness is significant, as is that of the off- spinner Graeme Swann. And nobody should be complacent about Pietersen's place in the scheme of things after the imbroglio of last year.
As ever, the opening exchange in Nottingham will be important. Of the 161 wickets taken by bowlers at Trent Bridge this summer only 32 have gone to spinners. But expect Swann to have an influence on his home ground and England to take an early lead in a rubber in which they can prevail 3-1.
England squad for trent bridge: Finn must prove himself fast
England sprang no belated surprises yesterday in announcing the 13-man squad for the First Test in Nottingham on Wednesday. The nearest to an eyebrow-raising selection was the Durham fast bowler Graham Onions, but he has no chance of playing in the starting XI unless serious injuries are sustained in the nets.
It was already known that Nick Compton would be overlooked after playing nine Tests in favour of Joe Root, who will be Alastair Cook's seventh opening partner in Tests.
The intention presumably is that they do the job for something like the 117 innings that Cook and Strauss opened rather than the 17 that Cook and Compton walked out together. By any lights, it is a significant moment in this team's evolution.
The biggest conundrum for Cook, as captain, and Andy Flower, returning as Test coach after the one-day interregnum, will be whether Tim Bresnan or Steve Finn should be the third seam bowler. Unless Finn can convince them that his run-up difficulties are resolved and that he is again bowling at 90mph consistently, Bresnan should play.
Squad A N Cook (capt), J E Root, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, J M Bairstow, M J Prior, T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, S T Finn, G Onions.
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